Tag Archives: american goldfinch

Photos of the Week: We Made It! The First Sure Signs of Spring!

Vernal pool thawing at Bear Creek

J.R.R. Tolkien provided the ideal words  to describe the in-between season in which we’re suspended right now: “… a morning of pale Spring still clinging to Winter’s chill.” Spring is officially here with the Spring Equinox, but mornings in the prairies and forests of the township can still feel as though we’re caught in the last weak grip of winter.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So this week, I thought I’d be on the lookout for sure signs of spring’s arrival and naturally, once I started looking, they were everywhere!

Birds Herald Longer Days with Song and Some Fancy Posturing

Arriving at Draper Twin Lake Park one cold, gray Sunday, my husband and I heard a very loud, clear rendition of the entire spring song of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). (Cardinals have a lot of calls. Listen to the second call listed at this Cornell link – that’s the one we heard.) This fellow seemed confident that he could woo the ladies and establish his territory at the same time with his full-throated singing! Look at that beak!

A Northern Cardinal shouts out his spring song!

Male  American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at our feeder are changing out of their modest winter attire into their breeding feathers. In a month or so, they’ll be bright yellow in the hope of interesting a female with an eye for color. Here’s a male on the bottom right perch of our thistle feeder who started changing his wardrobe in March. Perhaps the female on the bottom left perch will be interested? (The other birds are Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) who will migrate north before long.)

The male Goldfinch on the bottom right perch is signaling spring by changing into his bright yellow breeding feathers.

The buzzing trill of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), which is accompanied by raising his red shoulder patches, is a common and beloved sign of spring here in Michigan. But last week I saw a male who was taking display to a whole new level. While calling, he also began awkwardly dancing along a branch, keeping his scarlet “epaulets” raised, occasionally fanning his tail, all in the interest of establishing a territory and showing off for some lucky female. What a guy! (Click through the slide show below to see the progression of his dance!)

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Other birds establish dominance over other males with creative use of their necks! Below two newly arrived Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) appear to be  trying to “out-snoot” each other with their beaks tilted skyward!  I think the one on the right is probably the winner here, don’t you? Or else the one the left is an uninterested female. It’s hard to tell.

Grackles use head tilting to establish dominance over other males.

Mark, a birding friend, told me that the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) at Stoney Creek Metropark were doing their dramatic neck displays as well. According to Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, Goldeneyes spend December to April in courtship groups where they form mating pairs by performing  a lot of energetic neck movements. The male bends his neck backwards until his head lays on his back and then he snaps it forward, splashing water with his feet at the same time! The female responds by lowering her head and swinging it forward. Pretty dramatic courtship! I wasn’t able to get to the Metropark this week, but a kindly photographer from iNaturalist, who goes by Mike B, allowed us the use of this photo of a male taken near Chicago. These diving ducks are headed to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, just south of the Arctic.

A male Goldeneye doing a courtship display before heading farther north.Photo by Mike B (CC BY-SA) at iNaturalist.org

Flocks of Birds – Large Ones and Small Ones – Fly Overhead and Forage in Our Parks

The birding group had an exciting Wednesday at Charles Ilsley Park when two huge flocks of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) flew overhead! Cornell says that these huge, all white swans with black beaks spent the winter on the Atlantic coast and are now headed to the Arctic tundra to build their nests and breed. Aren’t we lucky to be on their flyway?

Another birding friend, Mike Kent, took the photo below, because, wouldn’t you know, that was the day I decided to leave my camera at home!!! Look carefully at Mike’s photo because he caught a fascinating detail. We saw one lone Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) traveling along with this huge flock of swans! You can just see its dark body in the upper left of the photo, third bird down. Hope this adventurous goose doesn’t plan to go all the way to the Arctic with its new-found friends!

A huge flock of Tundra Swans with a lone Canada Goose (upper right) traveling with them. Photo by Mike Kent.

That Wednesday was great for seeing big birds at Ilsley Park. Mike also caught for us a nice photo of a family of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) who settled at the bottom of a slope to rest and feed. The larger, darker birds to the right are probably the adults, while the two smaller gray ones on the left are probably last year’s young ones.

A family of Sandhill Cranes at Ilsley park. Possibly adults to the right, last year’s juveniles to the left. Photo by Mike Kent.

At Bear Creek Nature Park, smaller flocks were chatting in trees and foraging along the paths. A noisy group of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were snatching berries from a tree infested with invasive Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Some robins overwinter here and some migrate to southern Ohio and Kentucky. Some move back and forth all winter long. Though these non-native berries attract them during the winter, they unfortunately don’t provide much nutrition for the birds since thawing and freezing makes them very sugary. So migrating, in their case, might be a better choice!

A robin from a larger flock sits among the berries of invasive Oriental Bittersweet.
A small part of a flock of probably 20 robins at Bear Creek Nature Park this week.

On a path from the playground to the Walnut Lane at Bear Creek Nature Park, I saw my first flock of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). I love to listen to these tuneful birds in the spring, but have never before seen a flock of them in one area, as I did this week. They were “chicken-scratching” by scooting backwards with their feet in a ferocious attempt to get at some food beneath the surface -probably small seeds or insect eggs. The flock was so busy that the ground along the trail looked torn as they scraped their way down to the frozen surface, looking for food.

A Song Sparrow, part of a flock on the path at Bear Creek, searched for food by scratching backwards on the soil like a chicken.

Buds are Swelling from Bare Branches – a Welcome Sign of Spring’s Arrival

Every year as spring approaches, I watch the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) to the right of the deck at Bear Creek’s Center Pond. It’s always one of the first trees to signal spring for me, its robust, red buds hanging gracefully from drooping branches over the water.

The swelling red buds of Silver Maple are an early sign of spring approaching.

A small Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) near the pond has just barely thrust its leaf bud from the woody protection it had during the winter (left). In May, it will be a huge glorious bud (center), and in June, the green leaves will unfold into the sunlight (right). (Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Yes, It’s Muddy…but It’s S’posed to Be, Right?

Sky in a puddle at Bear Creek Nature Park

It’s the end of March. Most of the ice on the surface is gone (at least for the moment!), but the ground is still frozen beneath. So rain and melting snow have nowhere to go. That makes for muddy shoes, smeared pant legs and cars decorated in various shades of brown. But hey, those signs announce that full-fledged, glorious spring is almost here! Birds are beginning to sing, dance, do a bit of neck gymnastics, don spring colors and wing their way north overhead in huge numbers. And trees are slowly waking from their roots, sending sugary sap up through their vascular systems, ripening their leaves for another summer of sun-gathering. All of  nature, including us humans, have survived a very challenging, deep-freeze winter. Now’s the time to celebrate just being alive on a mudluscious walk in the pale sunshine of an early spring morning.

Charles Ilsley Park: Hardy Companions, Tracking the Unseen and the Ghosts of Flowers Past

Charles Ilsley Park’s Northern Prairie, as seen from the spring-fed pond in the center of the park.

I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the  brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of  birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.

Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?

Stalks of Indian Grass forming a scrim as I look across the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!

The two-toned bill, breast spot, eye-line and chestnut cap are the Tree Sparrow’s field marks.

Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact  with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.

Part of a large flock, of Tree Sparrows feeding in the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.

The bent stalk  of a Black-eyed Susan near the ground makes it easier for the  Tree sparrows to get at the seed.

Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.

A male Eastern Bluebird paused from preening for just a few seconds while sitting in the brush near the tree line.

The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit”  call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.

The female bluebird gave a little signal call to her preening mate as I approached.

At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank”  call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.)  It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.

A White-breasted Nuthatch probed the bark on a dead limb for hidden insects or their eggs.

Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…

Some pretty striking tracks greeted me in the center field of the park.

As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks.  I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.

I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do.  They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.

Coyote tracks across the western prairie

Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.

A coyote print in iced-over snow.

I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.

The entrance to the farthest west section of Charles Ilsley Park with its rolling land and woods.

This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.

The coyotes prints entering the western section of the park.

After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.

The coyote heads off into the woods in the western part of Charles Ilsley Park.

It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie.  The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another.  I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.

The coyote’s tracks flowed over the slopes.

At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.

A flat area under the bushes and vines on the right looked like it could be a place where the coyote spent the night out of the wind.

Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.

A trackless pond beyond the one where the coyote’s tracks ended

I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.

The very tall, very straight trunk and furrowed bark of a Tulip-tree

Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.

The dried blossoms of a Tulip-tree which always blooms on the highest branches. 

Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.

Red buds high on a Silver Maple will swell and offer up one of the first bright colors of spring.

As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters.  The tracks around it were hard to read .  I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks  above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times.  Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene.  Just a guess.

A heavily tracked spot on the western prairie trail

One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.

A place where a squirrel may have dug up a nut or seed – or perhaps a coyote found a mouse before bedtime?

The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.

Coyote tracks running through the furrows of the private field on the west side of the park.

If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others.  Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie.  It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.

Mouse tracks that look like stitching disappearing into a hole in the snow.

On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought  a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface.  Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water  or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.

Tracks left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had also trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.)

The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring

I’ve begun  learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers.  Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?

Yellow Coneflower and Canada Wild Rye in late fall.

Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.

Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.

For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much.  I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.

I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.

I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden.  They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters  is represented in the winter photo below  because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling.  (Use pause button for captions.)

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Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.

Well, that’s a start.  I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue  (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!

A young Field Sparrow on Foxglove Beardtongue in Charles Ilsley Park’s Eastern Prairie.

See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…

Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk

It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning.  There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.

Photos of the Week: Birds Feasting on Seed, Sunshine – and the occasional frozen “dessert!”

Showy Goldenrod seed heads at sunset

On a frigid late afternoon a week or so ago at Draper Twin Lake Park, I came upon a large stand of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glowing in the sunlight. It turned out that I was not the only one enjoying that warm patch of sunlight backlighting plumes of goldenrod. That sunny curve in the trail was alive with winter birds!

Feasting on Seeds

Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twittered cheerfully back and forth in the grass below the plants, foraging with the sunlit stems swaying above them. These cheery-voiced winter visitors from the far north were landing on the goldenrods and nibbling at the seed heads.

A Tree Sparrow nibbles at the Showy Goldenrod to loosen the seed

That made some of  the seed fall to the ground, where the tree sparrows prefer to feed, so the tall grass below rippled with busily foraging members of the flock.

A Tree Sparrow foraging for seed fallen from the goldenrod seed heads above

And Tree Sparrows hung out in the bushes and trees nearby waiting their turn, some gathering a little warmth on their breasts from the setting sun.

A Tree Sparrow in bright sunlight with a dark twig shadow across its face.
An American Tree Sparrow in a nearby tree while clouds blocked the sun. This picture clearly shows the two-colored bill, rusty cap, rusty eyeline, and unstreaked breast that we use to identify tree sparrows.

They weren’t the only species enjoying that patch of sunlit goldenrod, though. Another winter visitor from Canada, a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), swooped into the lit plumes and began sampling the seed heads.

A Dark-eyed Junco nibbling on Showy Goldenrod near the Tree Sparrows

In the background, a tentative American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)dressed in its sedate winter plumage, waited its turn too. So many birds being fed at once! I imagine they all enjoyed the faint warmth of the winter sun shining through the plumes as they ate their evening meal.

An American Goldfinch waits for its turn to share the goldenrod seeds.

Foraging for a Frozen “Dessert”

A male Downy Woodpecker  (Dryobates pubescens) preferred to look for insect eggs or larvae in the stems of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). He moved quickly from plant to plant pecking furiously. Later in the winter, I often find goldenrod galls with neat holes in them where Downys have excavated larva from their winter hideaway inside. But this Downy Woodpecker was searching for something inside the stems themselves.

A Downy Woodpecker pecked at the stems of Canada Goldenrod, looking for insect eggs or larvae.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds seemed to be checking out possible real estate for the spring. The female sat on the box for some time, occasionally fluttering down to poke her head inside.  The male waited calmly nearby, taking periodic foraging trips down into the grass. (Click on photo to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Later I saw a female  – perhaps the one from the nest box? – pecking on a branch until she loosened a frozen, tiny green caterpillar, which she then promptly swallowed. She was so busy pounding on its hard surface that I never got a clear photo of the caterpillar in her beak – but here she is just after eating her frozen dessert. Looks like it might have felt a bit chilly on the way down, doesn’t it?

A female bluebird who’d just found and consumed a bright green frozen caterpillar!

In the same clump of bushes, a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) performed acrobatic feats while trying, it appeared, to extract some kind of insect from the end of a twig. Here it is hanging upside down as it pecked diligently for its supper. I love its feathered leg-warmers.

A Black-capped Chickadee pecked at the end of this twig until something to eat came out of it.

So whether a bird prefers seeds or likes to finish the day with a cold bug or two, Draper Twin Lake Park has food ready and waiting.  Nice how nature works like that…

Gallagher Creek Park: Young Birds and Young Humans Play as Autumn Carries On

Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park

Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.

A young Blue Heron peeks above the grass at the edge of the creek.

From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.

But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty,  a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.

The young heron stood quietly in the tree as I approached.
The young Great Blue Heron bent its knees backward to begin its flight.

While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.

A European Starling that had finished its complete fall molt leaving its iridescent feathers tipped in white.

Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.

Part of a large “murmuration” of swooping starlings near Gallagher Creek.

Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

Autumn, of course,  is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.

Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze.  I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.

It wasn’t easy for this Goldfinch to get the seed it wanted as the stalk it was on tossed back and forth in a stiff wind.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries,  since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem.  Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean.  Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.

American Pokeweed berries are glamorous but the seeds inside are slightly toxic.

Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.

The Bladdernut shrub produces these elegant pods full of shiny brown seeds that rattle in the wind.

The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind.  Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel).  I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.

As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.

A Reg-legged Grasshopper finding a niche on a log, just in case.

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.

Bottle Gentian blossoms never open, so bumblebees have to push their large bodies inside to get at the pollen and then push their way out!

Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.

A Monarch sipping at New England Aster as it begin its long migration to Mexico.

Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female

On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.

What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.

But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.

A female Bluebird holding the head of a grass stem in her beak.

She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.

Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.

Frustrated, she finally dropped the grass between her feet and studied it.

At last it seemed she had figured it out.  She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.

Ah, it works better to grasp the stem in the middle!

Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched.  And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.

I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.

Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning.  I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

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A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world.  So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears.  It’s great.

What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.

 

 

LOST LAKE NATURE PARK: Goose Drama, a Star-studded Insect and More

Ring-necked Ducks – 3 males and a female – in Lost Lake

Most of the action at Lost Lake Nature Park in the last few weeks has centered around which pair of Canada Geese control which section of the lake. These normally mild-mannered birds can act like a flock of drama queens when establishing territory and nesting. When I arrived for the first time two weeks ago, the weather was still cold, but some geese tempers were simmering!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

 

I’d just read The Geese of Beaver Bog by Bernd Heinrich and supplemented my limited Canada Goose knowledge with Donald Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume 1 – so I was curious to see if I could read Canada Goose body language for the first time. Well, it was quite an exciting set of lessons from the geese themselves!

Then I went on to explore the more mellow residents of Lost Lake Nature Park and also fell in love with some wildflowers and a momentarily glamorous insect.

 Drama at the Lake!

When I stepped out of my car during my first visit, a male Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and his mate saw me and moved away from the floating dock. The female swam calmly to the west end of the lake while the male patrolled the center.

The male Canada Goose keeping an eye on me from the center of the lake.

He turned his head toward me as I reached the dock and kept me in sight all the time. It was a cold day with a strong north wind, unusual for late April. As I walked along the shore toward the east, I heard the male goose honking wildly and turned to see him making a bee-line straight toward me across the pond! When he reached the dock, he took to the air and flew at me, honking wildly, his wings snapping just above my head. Needless to say, I did not raise my camera for a photo! He dropped heavily into the water behind me and gave what the Stokes guide called “the head flip,” stretching his neck high, shaking his head from side to side and giving what Stokes calls “quiet grunts” indicating that the goose is apprehensive or disturbed.

I was puzzled as to what I’d done to receive what was so clearly a threat. So after a few minutes, I moved back to the dock and finally noticed what should have been obvious before. A goose nest rested among the stalks on the island in the lake, lined with feathers from the female’s chest (a “brood patch”) and perhaps some cat-tail fluff. Silly me, I didn’t realize that the whole south side of the pond was this pair’s territory and they had started a family there!

A quite obvious goose nest probably lined with some of the female’s breast feathers and perhaps some cat-tail fluff.

On the far side of the pond, a second pair of geese were already nesting. Periodically the first male would venture somewhat toward the second pair and the male of that pair would stand with his neck very straight and his body tilted slightly forward. If I understand the Stokes Guide correctly, he was making an “I’m aware of you” signal to the other male, indicating that he sensed a possible confrontation. The first male circled away each time.

The male of a second pair raised his neck and head to indicate to the other male that he was approaching too close to his nest.

Later in that visit, the female goose of the first pair rejoined her mate near the nest. As she approached, they both began what Stokes calls a “greeting ceremony.” She would call softly “hink, hink” as she swam and he would respond almost simultaneously with his loud “A-honk!” When she reached him, she put her bill near his, almost tucking her head beneath his lower bill.

The female joined the male and they did a bit of the greeting ceremony, accompanied by soft calls.
The female placed her head right below the male’s during their greeting.

Then to my amusement, they both turned in my direction and seemed to be scolding me loudly for having dared to get that close to their beautiful nest! Look at the male’s eye turned right toward me and the female facing me directly! It was just a reminder….

The two geese honk loudly while facing me, perhaps as warning to not get so close to their nest next time!

On my next visit to the dock, it was the female who gave me the warning – a stern look as she sat on her nest. That neck position with a straight, lowered head aimed right at me is a threat pose. She remembered this possible trespasser with the camera!

The female goose takes a threat pose from her nest on my second visit. She knows a trespasser when she sees one!

On my third visit, she still kept an eye on me, but seemed more relaxed at my presence, just turning her head to let me know that I was seen. That extended wing may be creating a warm blanket for her eggs, if any,  as well as for her.

The nesting female was more relaxed on my third visit.

A week later, I saw what I thought might be my first pair quietly feeding near the nest. Female geese leave the nest for up to an hour during incubation and these two were very close to the nest. It was a lovely warm day and the eggs, if there were any, were probably quite warm under the loose feathers and cat-tail down. I also spotted a third nest at the west end of the lake with one goose standing over it and the female of the second pair on the north side was still sitting on her nest.

But the Canada Goose treat of the day was that, on my way home,  I stopped to see two adult geese down the road at a residential pond, standing guard over seven little goslings calmly munching on the fresh green grass.

A family of Canada Geese on residential property down the road from Lost Lake

Other Wildlife Around the Lake Seemed More Relaxed

On that third visit, I also got treated to a pair of very calm Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) floating around the bend in the island not far from the female goose. I’ve always seen photos of male Hooded Mergansers with their hoods raised dramatically, as in this photo by inaturalist.org photographer, Liam O’Brien.

A Hooded Merganser by Liam O’Brien (CC BY-NC)

The male at Lost Lake, however, seemed calm and collected. Through the veil of dry stalks, I was able to catch a quick shot of him. His relaxed crest lay in a slight droop at the back of his neck. The patterns of color on his body and head are so lovely and his bright, golden eye shone like a small gem in his velvety black head!

A male Hooded Merganser cruised Lost Lake in a relaxed mode, his dramatic crest a droop of feathers on the back of his neck.

On the coldest days, the Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) on the far edge of the lake tucked their bills into their back feathers. I thought perhaps they were keeping a low profile against the icy north wind that drove quick, short waves across the pond. In this relaxed posture, they simply drifted with the wind.

A Ring-necked Duck tucked his bill into his wing feathers, perhaps trying to cope with the icy wind.

A gathering of Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) sun-bathed on the log where I’d first seen the Mergansers. This large one looked particularly content, despite its perpetual grimace.

Nearby, I think I kept hearing the snoring call of the Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens). It’s as low as the Wood Frog’s, but less continuous and truly, very much like a snore! My recording was much too distant because the Leopard Frogs quieted every time I approached! But you can listen to one at this Macaulay Library link .

I didn’t know until this year that Leopard Frogs come out of hibernation from muddy lake bottoms in very early spring. I usually see them later in the spring or summer when they move into grassy areas. Here’s a picture of one a few summers back in just such an area at Bear Creek Nature Park. Snazzy spots, eh? 

Birds and Blossoms in the Wooded Areas

Lost Lake is surrounded by the high, dry hills cloaked by an Oak-Pine Barren. Birds flit in and out of the trees that surround the lake and the woods beyond. The rhythmic,  insistent call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) sounded from the very top of a snag near the lake one sunny afternoon.

Male Northern Flicker high up on a snag over Lost Lake

In the photo that accompanies my recording below, you can see why he was once called the Yellow-shafted Flicker.

Nearby, in the grassy area just west of the caretakers’ house, a female Flicker was paying close attention! Male flickers have a black “mustache” on either side of their bill; females don’t.

A female Flicker seems to be listening to the male’s insistent call

Flickers are actually woodpeckers, though they spend a lot of time on the ground probing for their favorite food, ants. In fact, woodpeckers of several kinds busied themselves foraging on snags all over Lost Lake.That’s one of the reasons bird lovers leave dead trees standing in their woods when they can. They provide places to eat and nest for woodpeckers. Here a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drills with great concentration on a dead limb, probably searching for beetle larvae.

The little Downy Woodpecker female is intent on finding some food in a dead limb.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) hitched quickly from branch to branch, probably looking for a similar meal, though he may also have been establishing a territory since he periodically let forth with his kwirrrr call.

In the White Pines (Pinus strobus) near the caretakers’ house, the cheery, tweeting call of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) can be heard almost any day! I imagine they frequent the family’s thistle feeder all day long!

An American Goldfinch sits in the White Pines near the caretakers’ house enjoying their thistle feeder.

Occasionally, I’d see an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) in the area, sometimes on a low limb or sitting on the upturned boat near the shore.  It’s always darting down near the water’s edge, probably seeking out insects, since it’s a flycatcher.

A Phoebe resting on the upturned boat before darting down to feed at the shore.

On my last warm day visit, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) had flown in on a south wind the night before. It took off  from a branch as I stepped out of my car, but then landed near the water, just as the Phoebe had. Perhaps you can just see the spot of greenery in its beak in the righthand photo? Nesting material, methinks! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Resilient Spring Flowers Flourish After a Prescribed Burn

A prescribed burn on April 27 nourished and warmed the native plants in Lost Lake’s natural areas.

The native plants of Lost Lake are a hardy bunch when it comes to fire! Shortly before a Lost Lake prescribed burn took place on April 27, I spotted two clusters of a classic spring flower, the native Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana). Some were along the trail to the Oak-Pine Barrens and the ones below were just at the edge of the grassy area west of the caretakers’ house.

A classic of early spring, Round-lobed Hepatica bloomed at the edge of the grassy area west of the caretakers’ house.

The fire crew was alerted to the presence of these little beauties and did their best to avoid them, leaving the ones in the photo above completely untouched, and singeing the ones along the trail, but leaving some leaves and blossoms. The surprise was that when I came back a week after the fire, the hepatica which was untouched by fire had disappeared  – perhaps finished off by warming temperatures or by a grazing deer. But the singed ones along the trail had made a comeback! These fire-adapted plants were producing new leaves and blossoms already on the blackened forest floor! The nutrients from the last year’s dry stalks had been released back into the soil by the fire and the blackened soil was nicely warmed again – so up they came for a second chance in the sun!

Likewise, down near the burned shore of the lake, under the trees, a huge patch of another native plant, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) emerged from the darkened soil. Their umbrella-like leaves were just beginning to open in the dappled light.

The native May-apples, also fire-adapted, emerged from the blackened soil to bloom in shade near the pond.

And of course the fire couldn’t reach the leaves of the Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) rising from beneath the water near the edge of the lake. I never knew just how the lily pad took shape. Evidently they come up vertically like a wide blade of green and then eventually lay back on the water surface, as the various stages in the photo below suggest. I’m looking forward to the summer blossoms that bloom in the morning.

Fragrant Water Lily leaves rise from beneath the water and eventually lay back to become the lily pad.

And One Very Cool Insect with Stars at Its Feet

A tiny Water-Strider (fam. Gerridae) rowed across the surface of a wetland at the foot of the slope in the Oak-Pine Barrens. This little creature literally walks on water! In the shadows, it was easier to see its body and legs covered in thousands of tiny hairs which keep its body dry and light enough to perch above the water as it forages. Its long, flexible, strong legs distribute its body weight evenly so it can move easily across the surface of the water – hence its irreverent other name, the Jesus bug!  It steers using those long back legs and pierces its prey with the claws on the middle of its front leg!

But suddenly, when this amazing little creature moved into the sunlight, a small reflection of the sun shone like a star where each leg met the waterline.  I was delighted and immediately decided that the Water Strider could be the “star-studded finale” on the blog this week!

Seeing this tiny rower motor about the surface of a wetland, listening to the snap of a goose’s wings right over my head, or coming upon little lavender flower faces peering  up at me from the grass – those moments are epiphanies for me. They illuminate the reality that despite the presence of nature’s most invasive species, i.e. we humans! –   nature endlessly tries to adapt and survive, even if it means walking on the water, challenging a trespasser or springing out of burned earth. Surely such skills, daring, resilience and sheer beauty deserve our loyalty, protection and thoughtful stewardship.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; maccaulaylibrary.org; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; A Guide to Bird Behavior Volume 1 by Donald W. Stokes,and other sources as cited in the text.